Oh Sylvia, I’m so sorry

Buried in the belly of the Tate Britain are two white rooms.

Their temporary occupants are a 1970’s Women and Work archive exhibition and next door, a display of the art and craft of Sylvia Pankhurst, the women’s suffrage campaigner.

The Other F-word (Feminism) has been getting a lot of media attention recently so I figured why not find out where it all started; with the Suffrage movement. Concerned with important issues like votes for women and equal employment, these ladies were the pioneers of women’s rights a hundred years ago. They were the Pussy Riot of their day, campaigning, petitioning, getting locked up.

They got us the vote.

With all the radical activism going on with Sylvia et al. I was expecting great things from the exhibition.

I expected corset burning. I was disappointed.

It was characterised by absence of excitement and by being six degrees hotter than the rest of the Tate. I think the heating was broken. I considered getting naked in protest but took my coat off instead.

A written request from Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender, on The Emily Davison Lodge letterhead, was on display. Every page of it behind a plate glass display.

It detailed at why the Tate should put on an exhibition of Sylvia Pankhurst’s designs, paintings and sketches. It explained the cultural and political importance of her work documenting women’s working conditions in her sketches and giving the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a visual identity.

Pankhurst’s depictions of women at work are technically very good; she did win a scholarship to The Royal School of Art in 1900.  From the labelling I understand that her branding for the WSPU was noted as the first known instance of a campaigning group using a logo and colour scheme.  (Yes, I read the labels!)

But the display was staid and felt forced. It appeared that little effort was made to make it appealing to the average gallery-goer.  If I hadn’t already made the decision to stay and read all the labels I would have walked out. It is by far the most visually disengaging exhibition I have ever had the misfortune to view. It wasn’t Sylvia’s fault.

My guess is that the letter on display is meant to contextualise the exhibition but in fact it looked like an excuse. The curator saying, “I’m sorry visitors, they complained too loudly and I had to do it (which is why I couldn’t be arsed to make it accessible to a non-academic audience.” I could be wrong, of course.

I believe in art for all and that anyone can get excited about art and politics given the right setting. Sadly the curation made Pankhurst look like a middle-class Victorian curtain botherer with a penchant for gouache, rather than the revolutionary she actually was. Exhibitions of feminist work and art when curated poorly can actually do more damage than good. This one succeeded in making an important historical figure look irrelevant to my generation. She should be celebrated, not shoved in a cultural box room at the back.

Sylvia Pankhurst and the Suffragettes did 100 years ago in Holloway Prison what Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her Pussy Riot comrades are doing today in Russia.  With one slight difference.

Sylvia did it with all her clothes on.

Image from http://www.audacity.org/B-review-Sylvia-Pankhurst-a.htm

Stroking Barbara Hepworth


She sits quietly, on a plinth, with perfectly chiselled lines, strung like a Stradivarius.

I admired the natural knot and split in the curves. My digits itched for it.

Ooh the temptation.

It would not be the first time I’ve been told off for stroking sculptures.  Security guards have something against it. Last time was in the cast gallery at the V&A. (It was a cast! Not even the real thing!).

I just want to feel the texture of the material, to touch what the artist touched. I want to know how it came into being and run my fingers over the rough and smooth of a masterpiece. Wood, stone, metal and marble, against skin.

Tactile sensation is one of my weirdnesses. From a very young age I wandered after Mother in M&S brushing coats, shirts and skirts with my sticky child hands. With age this expanded to include wood furniture, stone walls, expensive book covers and occasional trees.

I am still that annoying child. I still get told off.

There is nothing sexual about it and it is not every object. I passed, without incident, Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel, all mottled light pink and elephant heavy.  I like it but it doesn’t make my fingers hungry like the rolling waves of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Neither do the classical features of a darkened brass ‘man wrestling snake’ and his naked marble friends. The fig leaves are off-puttingly small. Those poor muscular men having their marble chippers chopped off. Ouch.

No, the Modernists are much more enticing. I love the clean lines and shape.

But I’m on best behaviour in the Tate Britain. There’s a show I came to see and I’m lost amongst the past masters trying to find it. I have a mission! It would not do to get thrown out.

Look, don’t touch.

Fingerprints hurt the art. The pH levels and grease will ruin everything. The men in white gloves say so. They know these things.

Custodians and curators of these objects are cruel. Putting them on show at arms length. These sculptures are just aching to be caressed.

The rules are rules though.

So as I walked past Moore and Hepworth in the Walk Through I kept my childish hands firmly in my pockets.

Night at the museum

A ripple of a chill raises the hair on my neck as I enter the store room.

Filled floor to ceiling with the detritus of old signage, retired equipment and stacks of objects longing for a glass cabinet of their own; it is a storage space for lost things. Upright in the corner stands a blackened iron chest the size of a circus strongman. No one has opened it, no one has a key, and no one knows what it is. It looms ominously inviting comparison with Trunchbull’s favourite punishment for Matilda’s classmates; The Chokey.

I choose to ignore it and make a quick exit. I’ve found the ‘Caution Wet Floor’ sign for the juice spillage. Besides it’s cold in there.

Even in the when it’s thirty degrees outside it’s always icy in the museum. Ancient stone walls, a foot thick in places, keep it cooler than air conditioning ever could. That is the logical explanation for the cold. We have an under desk heater to roast shins when thermals just won’t do. It isn’t switched on. No, the chill is something else.

Before it was reborn as a museum the building went through several incarnations. Foundations laid by medieval merchants, roots which were built upon, extended, remodelled, destroyed, rebuilt, and finally restored.

Several centuries of life have wandered through these rooms and they have left their mark. Ragged stonework protrudes at odd intervals, timbered floors are worn to a dark polish and a fireplace is scarred by the graffiti of the civil war soldiers billeted there.  The stone is silent but if it could speak it would tell tales of war, drunken sailors, wealthy men and broken tenement dwellers.

Urban legend says that some of the souls who laughed, cried and breathed in these rooms never left. Spectres of children, soldiers and a mysterious woman in a long dress have been seen. In the stillness between 5pm closing and the early morning unlocking the ghosts come out to play.

Outlines of figures flicker across the upstairs windows, objects change places, lights which were switched off  turn on again of their own volition. Eerie creaks and sighs are heard. Voices and a child’s laughter echo round the ancient walls.  Some rooms are colder than others, some visitors claim the very rooms vibrate with the supernatural.  For me there’s just a freaky cold vibe sometimes. The ghost stories and superstitious bullshit hold no interest.  The stories are good for the tourists though; they lap them up.

Night is on its way as the last visitor is shepherded out. Shut down is efficient; we take less than ten minutes. One last check for stray people then lights off and doors locked. As the heavy front door thunks closed, and the alarm pips good night, I catch something in my peripheral vision.

A grey shadow crosses the first floor window. My skin prickles. I dismiss it. It’s probably just the lights going again as a the result of weird electric wiring. I tell myself I don’t believe in that crap anyway.

I must be imagining it, because there’s no such thing as ghosts… is there?

The Half Way Through Review – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Welcome to The Half Way Through Review…

About a fortnight ago I accidentally made a bet with my little sister that I could beat her in a marathon. Since I only tend to run when there are big scary people in pursuit (i.e. when playing rugby), this was a fairly stupid bet to make. Sibling rivalry will not carry me through all 26.2 miles of pain so my Book and Beer Club friends recommended some reading for inspiration. God knows I need the motivation….

The book they lent me was What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami. Its title suggests a memoir of distance running, with a long distance title to match, but it may as well be about novel writing. Either way a very apt read considering my summer plans.

From my marathon inspired Googling I concluded that it is the go-to book about running for anyone with a literary bone in their body. In fact it’s been read and reviewed by approximately five million wannabe runner-writers and in several different languages too I’m sure of it. (I didn’t read them)

I’ve half read Murakami before, in the form of Norwegian Wood, and quite enjoyed the transporting effect of his poetic prose before shelving it for another book*. Given my inability to finish reading any book, regardless of its inherent greatness, it is reassuring to find this Murakami is easy access. Written in a gentle conversational style, rather than the dark-and-twisty-ness of the novels, it flows in time from present-day marathon training back and forth across 25 years of his life.

I’m not sure the book could be classified as a bona fide sports memoir, Murakami doesn’t count himself as an athlete from what I understand, and his ability to use language blows the sports jocks out of the water.  It doesn’t sit well on a shelf with footballers, boxers and cricketers. It’s seems to me more of a memoir memoir because there are too many aspects of life in the pages to be confined to a genre.

Murakami began running in ’82 and has since run a marathon a year, every year, clocking up an average of 6 miles daily over 365 days a year in training. He has also written a fair few novels and other works of international renown. He talks at length about his routines both in running and writing throughout the book.  Discipline and endurance are plain to see in both his hobby and profession; comparisons between the two are sewn into the very spine of it.  His ability to knuckle down is quite inspiring and the self deprecating way Murakami suggests his focus makes up for a lack of talent is endearing. He puts all his success down to hard work, sweating his way through each novel, like he does the punishing miles of a marathon.

However, I can’t help but thinking that, while his lifestyle clearly suits him well (the dude was pushing  60 when he wrote this and still running marathons!), his rigid work ethic lacks space for spontaneity. As someone of lesser talent, I need external stimuli for inspiration sometimes, and I’m left wondering slightly in awe that he plucks all that wordage from his head alone. Occasionally he can be a bit serious. That’s when I find myself wanting to drag him to the pub (or a jazz bar) for a crazy night out.

That said, a quiet humour permeates; I can imagine him smiling to himself in some sentences. Each chapter is accurately stamped with a date and location (from Hawaii to Tokyo to Cambridge, MA) and labelled with titles such as “Even if I had a ponytail back then” and “Who’s going to laugh at Mick Jagger?”.  The sense of time and space is accentuated by detailed descriptions of his training runs which he clearly loves. My favourite parts of the book, other than the training runs, are the times when he gets all philosophical and off on a tangent about getting older/slower.

As yet I don’t know whether What I talk about will provide enough motivation to complete The Marathon Bet but so far it has inspired a determined writing work ethic which was previously so lacking. The Final Verdict: I might actually go the full distance with this book.

*I very rarely finish a book as those of you who followed me from www.frontlip.eu will know, hence The Half Way Through Review.